January 1952: The luxury passenger train City of San Francisco labored through deep snows and the winds of a fierce blizzard in the Sierra Mountains. With a final clatter, the train ground to a halt, snowbound with 226 passengers onboard—trapped in the infamous Donner Pass.
Desperate to clear the tracks, Southern Pacific tried everything— and failed. It was too windy for a helicopter, and drifts were too high for snowplows. One got stuck in an avalanche and the driver was killed.
There was no food or medical supplies, and fuel to warm the passenger compartments was running out.
Dogsled was the only hope. The Southern Pacific railroad called on Lloyd Van Sickle, one of the top drivers in the country.
Van Sickle knew he’d need his best dogs for this difficult run. Problem was, his leader—Rex of White Way—was hundreds of miles away, in San Francisco, with owner Agnes Mason. He was preparing for his turn in the ring at the Golden Gate dog show.
As soon as Mason got the call, she pulled her dog out of the show. With Rex, aka the “Blizzard King,”in the lead, Van Sickle delivered the supplies to the trapped passengers.
Samoyed historian and former Samoyed Club of America (SCA) president Jim Cheskawich considers Rex the ultimate example of the breed.“[His] legacy was to demonstrate how a well-trained and willing Samoyed could perform in many venues,” he says. Cheskawich has recently published a book on this four-legged American hero, The Story of Rex of White Way.
“Rex excelled as a working dog by serving as the lead dog on a regular 64-mile mail route in Idaho, which ran over a 7,200-foot-high mountain pass, participated in more than 30 rescue operations, and was virtually unbeatable in Samoyed sled races.”
Rugged Good Looks
With their fluffy white coats and classic “Sammy smile,”it’s easy to see how the general public might overlook the breed’s true nature.
Fanciers know the Samoyed as a working dog, a primitive breed native to one of the world’s harshest climates, who has bred true to type for a thousand years with minimal interference by man.
And the cliché that Sammys are big white dogs that smile?
“The Sammy smile is written into the [breed] standard to show on the outside what is on the inside,” says longtime fancier Peggy Gaffney. A sweet disposition is essential.
Outwardly, the Samoyed presents a picture of alertness, strength, and grace. His silver-tipped double coat consists of a thick, woolly underlayer that insulates against extreme temperatures, and a coarse outer layer that easily repels snow, ice, and dirt. Under all that coat is a medium-sized dog, stronger and more compact than he appears.
White on White
The name Samoyed comes from the Samoyede, a semi-nomadic people of Asian descent who have incorporated this breed into their daily lives since antiquity. It’s believed that the Samoyede migrated with their dogs to Siberia, north of the Arctic Circle, in the first millennium.
The Samoyede’s traditional lifestyle centered around reindeer, which they used for food, clothing, housing (domed tents called chooms), and other necessities of life. Initially they used their dogs, which they called Bjelkier (which translates to “white [dog] that breeds white”) to hunt reindeer.
After generations in Siberia, the Samoyede partially domesticated the reindeer, which enabled them to transition from a hunting to herding lifestyle. As the Samoyedic culture changed, their dogs also adapted—from primarily hunting and sledge work to herding.
The Samoyede now used their dogs yearround as herders, guardians, and hunting dogs, as well as sled dogs.
According to legend, the Samoyede so trusted these dogs that parents would leave a dog to guard their children and possessions while they were out hunting during the day. The dogs were considered part of the family, even sleeping with their owners in the choom.
And they certainly helped keep their families warm on cold Arctic nights—the original three-dog night!
European explorers to Siberia in the 19th century brought back some of these beautiful and friendly dogs, who soon became sought-after gifts for the tzars and other European royalty.
Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen used Samoyeds in his historic 1911 trip to the South Pole. Although Amundsen is credited with being the first man to reach the South Pole, he accomplished this feat at least a sled-length behind his Samoyed lead dog.
Antarctic Buck, a veteran of Carsten Egeberg Borchgrevink’s 1899 Antarctic expedition, spent several years in a Sydney, Australia, zoo before Clara and Ernest Kilburn Scott purchased him and brought him to England in 1909. Many fanciers believe that without Buck and his descendents there would be few show Samoyeds today. The same might also be said for Buck’s rescuers, the Kilburn Scotts.
Kilburn Scott Legacy
In 1889, Ernest Kilburn Scott accompanied a Royal Zoological Society expedition to Archangel, Russia. There, the story goes, he came upon a fat white puppy who was about to become dinner for some local tribesmen. Kilburn Scott bought the puppy, named him Sabarka, and brought him back to England as a pet.
As an expert in the new, high-tech field of electrical engineering, Kilburn Scott traveled extensively and acquired the means to import and breed a number of Samoyeds.
In 1899, the Kilburn Scotts bought eight dogs from a fellow enthusiast and explorer, Frederick Jackson, who had used them on his expedition to Franz Josef Land, an arctic archepeligo.
Together, Kilburn Scott and Jackson developed the first breed standard, and then founded The Samoyede Club (the final “e” was dropped later) in 1909. By 1912, when the breed achieved Kennel Club (England) recognition, the Kilburn Scotts had some 50 Samoyeds, which they were selling to both fanciers and explorers.
The first Samoyed to be registered by the AKC was Russian champion Moustan of Argentau, in 1906. Moustan and three other Samoyeds (Sora, Martyska, and Siberia) had been brought to America in 1904 by Rosalie Mercy d’Argentau, Princesse de Montglyon, an internationally known society beauty and a breeder exhibitor of Collies and Chow Chows.
The princess acquired Moustan as a gift from Russian Grand Duke Nicholas, brother of the tzar, during a visit to St. Petersburg in 1902. Shortly after the princess introduced Samoyeds, Ada Van Heusen of Greenacre kennels, in Connecticut, imported two pairs.
By 1920, 40 Samoyeds had been registered with the AKC. A second generation of American Samoyed fanciers helped expand the breed’s popularity in the 1930s. Helen Harris’s Snowland kennels, in Pennsylvania, and Agnes Mason’s White Way kennels, in California, produced a number of important dogs, including Rex of White Way.
Like their early counterparts, Samoyeds today are extraordinarily versatile, athletic dogs who can herd in the morning, pull a sled in the afternoon, and be a housedog at night.
But if they don’t have adequate activity or interaction with their owners, they’ll get bored and destructive, says Amelia Price, former president of the Samoyed Health and Research Foundation. “They’re almost like a precocious child. They’ll take all your energy, sap your strength, and drive you to distraction because of the interaction they demand of you. And because of this, you’ll never love any dog more.”
“Breeders definitely need to forewarn first-time owners how cunning they can be,” she adds. “They look like cute little stuffed toys, and you’ll let them get away with stuff you shouldn’t. The next thing you know, they’ll have exactly what they want—whether it’s your sandwich or sitting on your lap on the sofa.”
Knowing that a busy Sammy makes a better companion, the breed club encourages owners to engage their dogs in a variety of activities—sled and cart racing, excursion sledding or carting, weight pull, backpacking, skijoring, therapy work, and herding. Although ducks and sheep today take the place of reindeer, the herding instinct remains deeply ingrained.
Twin sisters Jan and Ann Schlobohm, who owned the top herding Samoyed in 2007, compete in herding because “it’s so much fun. The interaction between handler and dog is unlike anything you find in other dog activities, because [the herding animals also] enter into it,” Jan says. “It’s great to see the dog make his own decisions much of the time.”
And, of course, they shine before a sled. In 2007, Don Duncan and his team of 12 Samoyeds ran the only all-Samoyed team in the Norm Vaughn Serum run, a grueling 750-mile sledding expedition that follows the exact route of the famous 1925 run from Nenana to Nome to deliver diphtheria serum.
Despite trail temperatures that dropped to minus-50, observers noticed that the Sammys seemed to get stronger every day, and that they were the only team that didn’t need coats. Duncan brought the coats along, but, despite the frigid temperatures, the dogs never needed them.
“I was surprised by their resilience,” Duncan recalls. “Extreme cold, glare, ice, wind, overflow, I had no idea how the dogs would react. I am so proud of them; they just lowered their heads and forged into it.”
For Duncan and his fellow Sammy enthusiasts, it was just more evidence of what they already knew—there’s a lot more to a Samoyed than a smile.